By Yves Engler, Jacobin, Dec. 15, 2021
he current military alliance between the United States and Canada has its origin in the interwar years. In 1938, then US president Franklin Roosevelt pledged that his nation “would not stand idly by if domination of Canadian soil was threatened by any other empire.” His opposite number William King responded in kind:
We, too, have our obligations as a good friendly neighbor, and one of them is to see that… our own country is made as immune from attack or possible invasion as we can reasonably be expected to make it, and that should the occasion ever arise, enemy forces should not be able to pursue their way either by land, sea, or air to the United States from Canadian territory.
In the years that followed, the two nations went on to strengthen their political and military ties, founding the Permanent Joint Board on Defense (PJBD) in 1940, the Military Cooperation Committee (MCC) in 1946, the North American Aerospace Defense Agreement and Command in 1958. It is, however, hard to shake the impression that within this alliance Canadian Force’s (CF) role is largely that of an appendage to their superpower southern neighbor.
A Devoted and Servile Ally
In the South China Sea, the United States’ most recent military theater, its ally to the North has been a willing escalator of tensions with China. In October, HMCS Winnipeg joined a US destroyer deliberately sailing through the Taiwan Strait. The military exercise, a provocation to Beijing, was in keeping with the Canadian Navy’s many international operations alongside its US counterpart.
Since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, a small “detachment” of Canadian soldiers continue to serve under US command. Operating out of the Prince Sultan Air Base near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the CF are in charge of a team of spy planes in one of the many little discussed Canadian military deployments around the world.
Under the Pentagon’s direction, the Canadian military has been setting up a network of international bases over the past decade. As part of the two nation’s initiative to “project combat power,” Canada has established “lily pads” — small military bases — in Kuwait, Senegal, and Jamaica. Negotiations are currently undergoing with Singapore, Germany, Tanzania, and South Korea over the possibility of establishing small bases within these nations.
Canadian special forces in particular have a long history of collaboration with their US peers. Under joint commander with the United States during World War II, Canada’s first special forces unit consisted of nine hundred Canadians and the same number Americans. The Devils Brigade, officially known as the Canadian-American First Special Service Force, carried out sabotage missions and organized resistance in North Africa, Italy, and southern France
Closer to home, the two North American nations deployed their respective special operations forces to rescue NGO and church workers allegedly under threat from Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) guerrillas in the late 1990s. In late 2001, forty members of Canada’s Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2), alongside its US and British counterparts, invaded Afghanistan.
The Canadian military has stood side by side with its neighbor to the south in almost every major conflict in which the US has participated. Tens of thousands of Canadians fought in Korea, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Libya. Between 2014 and 2016, Canadian fighter jets joined the US bombing campaign over Iraq and Syria.
Peacekeeping for War Hawks
Canada’s most well-known peacekeeping mission was instigated at the behest of Washington. The United States opposed the British, French, and Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956. Canada lead a UN force designed to extricate London from a war that sparked tension within NATO between the former imperial power and the new global hegemon.
In the early 1960s, Canadian peacekeepers played an important role in the US–Belgian assassination of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba. In February 2004, thirty JTF2 commandos took control of the airport in Port-au-Prince. From there, elected social democratic Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was bundled (“kidnapped” in his words) onto a plane by US Marines and deposited in the Central African Republic. Five hundred Canadian troops would go on to occupy Haiti as part of a US-instigated UN mission that installed an interim government led by Gérard Latortue following a violent coup.
Canada has hundreds of military accords with the United States. According to Canada’s Department of National Defence (DND), there are “eighty treaty-level agreements, more than 250 memoranda of understanding, and 145 bilateral forums on defence” between the two countries’ militaries. The most important of these binational military accords is the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
NORAD grants the US commander at its Colorado headquarters “operational control of an element of Canadian Forces in Canada.” Created to defend the two countries from an invasion by Soviet bombers coming from the north, NORAD’s existence owes itself to the Cold War politics of the mid-century. Outlasting the Soviet Union, NORAD’s systems supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq and US bombing in Afghanistan, Libya, and Somalia.
The CF purchases weapons to fight with their US counterparts. In 2002, Ray Henault, Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff, noted that “maintaining interoperability [with the US] is the key to the future relevance of the CF.” The government’s 2017 defense policy statement cited the importance of “interoperability” with US and NATO forces at least nineteen times. At its most basic, “interoperability” means the ability for military forces to act together seamlessly because their doctrines, protocols, and equipment are compatible.
An Ideal Accomplice
Canada’s large landmass and research capacities have been of significant benefit to the US war machine. In the 1950s and ’60s the DND funded and supported psychiatric research that the CIA used to refine torture techniques which it practiced across the globe. The Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University in Kingston helped turn the naturally occurring toxins in shellfish into a weapon. Canada then supplied these poisons to the US military’s biological weapons center at Fort Detrick in Maryland. In the 1970s, the CIA attempted to kill Cuban president Fidel Castro with a nearly untraceable pill consisting of this same shellfish toxin.
In the 1965, the US Air Force jets dispersed biological weapon simulants over Defence Research Establishment Suffield (DRES), in Canada’s prairie province of Alberta. DRES was important to US researchers during the war in Vietnam and the ability to test out weapons on Canadian soil helped to advance the United States’ war effort. As famed investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has explained:
Suffield has become colossally important to the CBW [Chemical Biological Weapons] people here in the last year. Ever since the uproar came out over tests within the United States [in the summer of 1969] it’s a known thing in Washington that Suffield has become the US prime testing area.
In the 1980s, DRES received a boost from the Reagan administration’s renewed interest in CBWs. On the other side of the country, the US tested Agent Orange and other defoliants used to decrease food supplies to areas supporting the anti-colonial insurgency in Vietnam. A 1968 US Army memorandum titled “Defoliation Tests in 1966 at Base Gagetown, New Brunswick, Canada” explained why Canada in particular was such a suitable ally to the United States.
The North American nation had at its disposal “large areas similar in density to those of interest in South East Asia.” Subsequently, “in March 1965, the Canadian ministry of defense offered Crops Division large areas of densely forested land for experimental tests of defoliant chemicals.” US military researchers designed these chemicals to target “similar vegetation densities to those of temperate and tropical areas such as South East Asia.”
The US Navy staffs and funds a testing facility on the east side of Vancouver Island in British Columbia (BC). Canadian Forces Maritime Experimental and Test Ranges (CFMETR) is largely used by US nuclear-powered and nuclear weapons–capable submarines. In the 1990s, US submarines fired thousands of torpedoes at the Nanoose Bay facility. (The soft seabed allows them to retrieve expensive torpedoes.)
Having endorsed Nuclear Weapons Free legislation, BC’s New Democratic Party (NDP) government sought a review of Nanoose Bay’s environmental impacts in the late 1990s. In response, Ottawa expropriated CFMETR’s land in what was the first hostile expropriation of provincial property since the early twentieth century (the Federal Court of Canada ultimately ruled against the federal government).
Washington regularly pushes Ottawa to increase military spending. Paul Cellucci, US ambassador to Canada in the early aughts, revealed that, upon his appointment in 2002, his only instruction was to advance this directive. During a 2016 speech to Canadian Parliament, President Barack Obama called on the federal government to increase its military spending. In 2018, President Donald Trump sent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a letter requesting that Canada improve its military preparedness.
If the history of US-Canada relations tells us anything, it is that what the main aim of the alliance between the two nations is to prepare for imperialistic military intervention abroad. Canadian military power exists as a prop for the United States’ global military supremacy. Breaking the close ties between these nations will go one step toward undermining the dominance of the world’s global hegemon.
Yves Engler's latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom? — A People’s History of the Canadian Military.
Posted Dec. 23, 2021